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Smokers need not apply

Smoking isn’t a civil right

By Howard Weyers

Rather than face the dangerous realities of smoking, critics of Weyco’s tobacco-free policy rush to the so-called slippery slope argument, imagining all kinds of dire consequences for workers. But the fact is, federal and state laws prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of age, sex, race, weight, national origin and other attributes — and smoking is not a civil right. It’s just a poor personal choice.

Moreover, for other lifestyle issues, Weyco provides positive assistance, such as wellness counseling and subsidized health-club membership, in which participation is voluntary.

So, let’s get real.

Employment is not a right, either. Businesses can hire whomever they wish based on desirable skills and characteristics, so long as the selection factors are lawful.

Nor is health insurance a right, but it’s darned expensive. Businesses generally need not provide it, and many don’t, thanks to years of double-digit cost increases — and a big reason for those is self-destructive behavior by a small percentage of employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that smoking costs $75 billion a year in excess medical bills and $82 billion in lost productivity. In Michigan alone, tobacco kills 16,000 people annually — more than alcohol, AIDS, crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.

Businesses have the right to protect themselves from the horrendous damage smokers inflict upon themselves and others — except in states with “smokers’ rights laws,” mostly passed in the early ’90s with tobacco industry backing. Furthermore, standard company incentives to quit tobacco haven’t worked.

Weyco’s mission is to help businesses improve employee health and cut costs with innovative benefit plans. Weyco decided to take the lead by phasing in a tobacco-free employee policy over 15 months, with company-paid smoking-cessation assistance.

It’s not about what people do at home. It’s about the acceptance of personal responsibility by people we choose to employ.

Weyco is proud of its position on tobacco and wellness. For every smoker who quits because of it, many others — family members, friends, co-workers — will be thankful the person has chosen a healthier lifestyle.

It’s not just about saving money. It’s about saving lives.

Howard Weyers is president of Weyco Inc.

Companies need to butt out

Cara Stiffler, a smoker, used to work at Weyco Inc., a medical-benefits administration company in Okemos, Mich. She and three other employees left Weyco last month because of the company’s anti-smoking policy: Workers aren’t allowed to light up on company property — or anywhere else. “I want to quit (smoking) but I want it to be on my terms, not someone forcing me to have to make that choice,” Stiffler told CNN.

The company says it’s acting for the good of its workers and to lower health care costs. But refusing to hire smokers, or firing them for lighting up in the privacy of their homes, crosses a line between promoting health and meddling in people’s lives. If companies can dictate whether employees can smoke, why not dictate what they can eat, or bar them from sky diving? Obesity affects health costs. Dangerous activities do, too.

Almost 80 percent of U.S. workplaces ban or restrict smoking. The restrictions have the force of law in seven states. About 350 municipalities ban smoking at workplaces, restaurants or bars.

Banning smoking in public places or workplaces is one thing. Banning workers from smoking off the job is another — except in cases where smoking has a direct and detrimental impact on job performance.

At least 6,000 employers refuse to hire smokers, the National Workrights Institute, an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, found. That prohibitionist trend led 29 states to pass laws protecting smokers from workplace discrimination. Unfortunately for smokers at Weyco, Michigan isn’t one of them. While Weyco is in the news lately, other employers have taken similar steps to extinguish smoking:

  • A Fall River, Mass., policeman was fired in 2003 after someone anonymously reported that he was smoking while off-duty at a party. State law allows police and firefighters to be terminated immediately for tobacco use. Several Florida sheriff’s departments won’t hire tobacco users, while officials in Pinellas County demand that applicants undergo polygraph questioning and tests for nicotine. Courts have upheld these policies.
  • Union Pacific announced a no-smoking policy last year for all employees, on and off premises. Alaska Airlines has long required job applicants to pass a nicotine test.

Companies say their actions are justified because smokers incur increased health care costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the nation’s cost for smoking is $3,383 a year for every smoker, $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical bills.

That’s good reason to discourage smoking, but not to justify discrimination. Many lifestyle choices affect health and insurance costs. Health costs related to obesity are $117 billion a year. How about sunbathers who risk skin cancer? What about sexual orientation and habits? What area of life is off-limits to company snooping?

Paying for health insurance shouldn’t let employers deny workers the chance to earn a living because they engage in legal activities on their own time. The carrot, such as nutritional and smoking-cessation programs, is preferable to the stick.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” Mark Twain noted. Once workers punch out for the day, their bad, but lawful, decisions ought to be their own business. Intrusive companies should butt out.

Copyright 2005, USA TODAY. Reprinted with permission.

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